I gave a talk at the OU yesterday called 'Literacy in the Digital University' (good title eh?) at which the audience was a mix of people from learning technologies and language & communication backgrounds. It was basically a development of the talk that Mary Lea and I did at the Edinburgh seminar - the slides and paper/notes are here (paper/notes) and (slides).
I took the opportunity to rehearse a critique of some of the discourses of transformation through technology that are prevalent in our university, through its distance learning practices and its connections to the wider 'learning 2.0' community. I tried to counterpose a discourse of academic values and the public mission of universities, using a 'literacies' perspective to look through the technological practices at the social relations which underlie them.
I used a slightly adapted version of Helen's 'Academic Values and Web cultures: points of rupture' table that she based a discussion on at the Edinburgh seminar (http://kn.open.ac.uk/LiDU/Seminar1/Beetham_text.doc) to point up how much we don't know about 'Net' communities, as opposed to 'Academy' ones, and how much we don't know about the potential impact of 'Net' cultures of knowledge on the historical mission of universities to educate in a broad, critical and ideologically-aware sense.
I was a bit surprised myself championing the rather conservative cause of preserving the Academy's practices against the radical (and youthful) iconoclasm of the Net - what would my 1968 self have thought about that I wonder?
But what gave me most cause for thought were some questions of Mary H's ontological kind (see previous post) that came at the end, chiefly from my Learning Technologist colleagues. In particular: If Literacy is 'social practice' why talk about Texts? Why not just talk about social practice?
I think people resist the notion that practices around learning with technologies can be adequately described in terms of textual practice. Partly this is a hangover from the intuitive idea that text really means print, but it also reflects the view that digital communication is real life interaction and can no more be encapsulated in its textual residues than a face to face meeting can be recreated in all its complex interactions from its minutes.
My answer at the time (helped by Mary L) was that we aren't just talking about social practice in general, because we are focusing on practices in the university, which are uniquely defined in terms of texts. This is what a Literacy perspective brings to the better understanding of teaching and learning in these contexts. But as Mary H points out - it is always going to be the case that what we currently call texts are what define practice in higher education? As HE gets more intermingled with other social fields (industry, commerce, the professions, popular culture - see Mandelson's 'Higher Ambitions' framework) and as practice-oriented communication becomes more mutimodal and time-shifted and otherwise dispersed won't the notion of text as a defining characteristic of university practice become less and less relevant?
Well - it will be interesting to see how the 'outputs' of digital scholarship shape up. My money says they'll look pretty textual, even if they are digital.
..and if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck..